Chris Isaak is clear about one thing from the onset. As a stage performer, he is anything but reserved.
Sift through roughly 25 years' worth of recordings — especially his moodier works, such as Heart Shaped World, Dancin' or the career-defining Wicked Game, which express their vintage pop smarts though a sheen of almost ethereal cool — and you might think otherwise. But plug in Isaak and his longtime band Silvertone onstage, and everything that fuels his rock 'n' roll world lights up like a Broadway marquee.
"We are not a band that shows up late in a dirty T-shirt and plays a few songs whilst squinting at our shows," Isaak said last weekend in an e-mail interview. "We love to play live. And we put on a show. We talk to the crowd, we get out in the audience and have people up onstage, we mix it up with fast songs and ballads, and the band is dressed in suits that James Brown would have wanted for his (band the Famous) Flames.
"I have one suit covered in mirrors that weighs 35 pounds. We are not shy."
At first glance, Isaak would seem the prototypical pop star. A lifelong Californian, he possesses the looks that would make you think he walked out of the same pop generation as Fabian. But the sophistication of his music has always been obvious. He is versed in rock and soul essentials, possessing the abandon of early Elvis Presley, the vocal range of a young Roy Orbison and the sort of dark guitar spirit that would do masters like Link Wray proud.
"I found a used 45 record in a junk store years ago," Isaak said. "And when I played it, the lights just went on. I knew. It was (the 1956 single) I'll Never Let You Go by Elvis. Later, I found out that this record and all the other records I was crazy about were recorded by Sam Phillips. He discovered, or created, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It's an amazing list.
"I'm currently working on an album of this kind of American rock 'n' roll. And like all great rock 'n' roll, we are practicing in my garage."
It didn't take long for Isaak's modern view of vintage pop to attract attention in and out of the music industry. Warner Bros. released the first in a string of 10 albums in 1985. His debut recording, Silvertone, impressed director David Lynch enough that Lynch included two of the album's songs — Gone Ridin' and Livin' for Your Lover — in the soundtrack to his film Blue Velvet.
In the years to come, Isaak and/or his music would be featured regularly in movies by several ground-breaking directors, including Jonathan Demme (Isaak acted in a minor role in The Silence of the Lambs), Stanley Kubrick (who included one of Isaak's finest songs, Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Isaak acted alongside Keanu Reeves in Little Buddha).
But the Lynch connection was especially fruitful, with Isaak's chart- busting Wicked Game landing prominently in the Wild at Heart soundtrack. The singer later acted with an all-star cast in Lynch's Fire Walk With Me, a 1992 prequel to the cult TV series Twin Peaks.
"I have probably worked most with David Lynch over the years. He is an amazing guy who can do it all. He writes, directs, paints, makes furniture and is a very mellow, smart guy. I also got to be friends with John Waters, a director, playwright and card-carrying nut in the greatest sense of the word. He is somebody who really doesn't give a damn. He tells it like it is and always with a smile and an upbeat attitude.
"I think it's always good to mix things up. But I have to say I spend way more time with a guitar than anything else. I love working in films. Who wouldn't? But even when I'm making a film, I always bring my guitar and play when they have a break."
Detour to television
Soundtracks and scores weren't the only ways Hollywood heightened the profile of Isaak's music. Wild at Heart certainly introduced the world to Wicked Game, but a music video featuring Isaak locking lips with model Helena Christensen along a beach coast greatly expanded the song's hit potential. Subsequent videos maintained Isaak's pop popularity throughout the '90s.
"I think our first hits were in Europe, but the videos brought us all over," Isaak said. "I was on tour when we had our first big video hit. I remember walking down the hall of the hotel and hearing my song coming out of every room as I passed. I spent a lot of time walking up and down the hall. It was a big kick."
Isaak's career has since taken him through two television series. Showtime's The Chris Isaak Show was a fictional variation of a traditional talk/variety show ("It was like going back to high school, only this time I was popular"). A&E's The Chris Isaak Hour was a more conventional music/interview show that aired in 2009.
But the lasting priority of Isaak's career has always been stage work — specifically, the relationship he has developed with Silvertone and how their rock, rockabilly, country and swing drive resonates with an audience.
"I have had the same guys for over 25 years," Isaak said. "I am really proud of them.
"Kenney (Dale Johnson), my drummer, can swing a beat like nobody else and sing a bird out of a tree. Rolly (Rowland Salley) is a bass player that has hits of his own (including Killing the Blues, covered most recently on the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album Raising Sand). My guitar man Hershel (Yatovitz) is good on anything with a string. I'm pretty sure he could take a solo on a yo-yo. Scotty (Plunkett), the piano player ... sometimes I call for a certain song onstage just because I want to hear his piano solo. And giving salt and pepper to the whole thing is my Cuban conga player Rafael (Padilla).
"And the really amazing thing is we all get along with each other and love being onstage or on a bus together. It always amazes me to hear about bands that hate each other. That would make for a long day."
But after a quarter-century of wicked games and rock 'n' roll, what is the thrill like when Isaak brings Silvertone to the concert stage these days?
"It's like sex but without all the devices and no guilt later. Well, OK, ... maybe a little guilt.
"I have my dream job, travel the world with my best friends, and sing and make music. I used to throw hay or put tar on a roof all day. I can tell you I like singing way more."